Widow’s Pique

A short story

Joseph Epstein

Larry has been dead it will be a month precisely this Thursday, and until now Deborah Siskin hasn’t had the courage — or is it the energy? — to go through the house and remove his things. Energy can’t be the problem, for she is, within her small circle of friends and colleagues, known for her tirelessness. Deborah is head of the department of orthodontics at the University of Illinois School of Dentistry; she raised three children, two now successful physicians, the other a lawyer. Until her husband’s death, she continued to cook dinner five or six nights a week after a full day’s work — Saturdays, she and Larry went out for Chinese food and a movie — and even found time to iron his shirts. No, not energy but courage is the problem, courage of a peculiar kind — the courage needed to face the meaning of her marriage of nearly 43 years. 

In Larry’s closet Deborah finds one suit, which she bought him to wear to accompany her to official dental school functions or to the occasional Jewish charity dinners to which she dragged him. He owned two blue blazers, one for teaching, one for travelling. She also took him to buy these. He had little sense of clothes, and with the passing years even less interest. His 12 or so shirts and nine ties (at least the unstained ones) she will take, along with the suit and blazers and odd trousers and his raincoat and down-filled winter coat, to donate to the ORT charity shop. His socks and underwear and handkerchiefs and three pairs of shoes and slippers and tired terry-cloth bathrobe she’ll toss out. 

The problem is Larry’s various collections. Over the years, he had bought the jerseys for all the National Football League teams, both past and present. He collected model cars from the Franklin Mint, about 50 of these. He also bought antique model-train cars, sometime spending three or four hundred dollars for them. Then there are his first editions; he was always claiming that his first edition of some now forgotten novelist — Stanley Elkin, Vance Bourjaily, George P. Elliott — was selling for $145 or some such price, though Deborah scarcely listened when he told her such things and anyhow she has no notion where to sell these books for the sums he mentioned, if such sums are really available. The largest collection of all was his classical music CDs, not to speak of the old vinyl recordings that he kept in boxes in the basement. Maybe the university, Northeastern Illinois, where Larry taught political science for the last thirty years, would want all this stuff, though Deborah knows that the big problem nowadays in universities is finding space even for its own things. 

Forty-six years ago in December Deborah had married an attractive young man, full of promise, which, as they grew older, she watched him slowly lose. She never confronted him with it; in the early years, she pretended it wasn’t happening. She didn’t want to admit the loss to herself. Life meanwhile rushed by. She finished dental school, then went into private practice; they had a daughter and then two sons. The question of divorce never occurred to her; she was not a divorcing woman. Instead, Larry somehow became her fourth child, one who drove a car and brought in some income, though nowhere near as much as she did. 

Larry didn’t keep a chequebook; when they went out to dinner, Deborah, at the end of the meal, used her credit card to pay. She paid all their bills, was in charge of investing their savings, had the first and last word on raising their children, dealt with car salesmen when it came time to buy new cars. Charlie Malkin, her colleague at the dental school, was astonished when she told him about the last. “Really, Deborah,” he said, “you mean Larry lets you go in there, a woman, alone, to dance with those wolves? Amazing!”

Her older sister Sharon didn’t much care for Larry, and didn’t mind saying so. Sharon once told Deborah that, in marrying Larry Siskin, it was as if, in the old shtetl culture of Eastern Europe, she had married a brilliant yeshiva student whom her father had agreed to support for five or six years so that he could continue his studies. “Except,” Sharon added, cruelly, “Larry turns out to be not all that brilliant, and the five or six years has turned into a lifetime, with you doing the supporting.” 

Larry came from a wealthy family, much wealthier than the Pollocks, Deborah’s own family. The Siskins lived in a vast apartment at 3400 N. Lake Shore Drive. His father and mother were both lawyers, and his older brother Mel had recently graduated from Yale Law School. He had a younger sister, Roberta, who had intended to — and eventually did — go to law school, Harvard, in fact. Larry joked that the family dog, a cocker spaniel named Rusty, had just been accepted for law school at Fordham. He never quite said that he thought himself too good for law school, but managed to convey that going into law was a pedestrian choice,  a touch demeaning, something rather déclassé

As a young man, Larry was handsome, with dark hair combed in an ambitious pompadour, on the model of the pop singers of the day (Frankie Avalon, Ricky Nelson, Fabian); his flared nostrils gave his youthful face a dramatic look, suggesting, Deborah used to think, reserves of passion. His walk had a swagger, which later turned into something like a sashay; when he entered a room, his presence seemed to announce, All right, I’m here, things can now officially begin. It still did, but nobody any longer cared. 

Deborah used to remind herself of the Larry she married through looking at old photographs. But whenever she took out old family photograph albums, that young man her husband seemed to her a stranger. Larry began to lose his hair in his early thirties, the one physical element in his makeup about which he was touchy. He had put on weight. He had grown sallow, for he had been discovered to have diabetes of a kind serious enough to cause him to take insulin and which slowed him down in various ways, not least in the bedroom. But saddest of all, though you had to look carefully to notice, a look of disappointment insinuated itself in his face, especially when he was tired, which seemed to be much of the time.

As a graduate student in political philosophy at the University of Chicago,  Larry had come under the influence of a teacher named Hans Morgenthau. A German émigré, Jewish, of the school of Realpolitick, Morgenthau, a conservative thinker who had nonetheless opposed the Vietnam War, put Larry in touch with an important undersecretary at the State Department named George Ball, who also opposed the war. Morgenthau suggested Larry drop out of graduate school and become George Ball’s protégé, and from there work his way up through the ranks of the State Department and into a life of high-level diplomacy. But Larry and Ball found too many things to disagree about, or so Larry claimed. He talked about being let down, betrayed, hinting that anti-Semitism held him back at State. After three years living in Washington, it became clear that a diplomatic career wasn’t going to work out. They returned to Chicago, where Larry re-enrolled in graduate school, but now with much diminished, even shrivelled expectations. 

As a graduate student, he took his time, a little more than six years, finishing his course work and writing a dissertation on Machiavelli for his PhD. Deborah was by then in private practice. They had some help from Larry’s father when they bought a small house in Lincolnwood. Larry was kept on for six more years as a teacher in the political science department at Chicago, but he wrote almost nothing during this time. He complained a lot about the ignorance of his students, and even more about the wretchedness of his colleagues. When his six years were up, Chicago — no surprise here — did not offer him tenure. 

Larry was lucky, or so everyone but he thought, to land a job at Northeastern, teaching political philosophy, but he didn’t look at it this way. A city college, tucked away in the residential Albany Park neighbourhood, Northeastern was a place where most students worked full-time at other jobs and were aiming for degrees they hoped would give them a leg up in the job market. Despite his not having written anything since his dissertation, Larry’s PhD from Chicago carried some cachet at Northeastern. Still, it was a great comedown from his dreams of an important job at the State Department to be teaching Hispanics, Palestinians and middle-aged Jewish housewives about the subtleties of Rousseau, John Locke, and Montesquieu. But Larry was by then in his middle-thirties with nowhere else to go. 

Deborah wonders if she should have said something to him, told him to get off his duff, he had a good mind and was still young, what could possibly be the point of his settling for a life of indolence and complaint? But she never did. She had just established her academic connection at the University of Illinois, her children were growing up — her own life was full, so full that not even an unhappy husband could drag it down. 

Soon Deborah began to wonder if her Larry’s early promise was real. She can scarcely remember. Marrying in one’s early twenties, as she had done, is of course an act of foolishness, though in her generation everyone seemed to do it. She had married a man she then thought of as attractive, not unkind, with prospects of doing serious work. Did she love him? Or did she instead feel a touch sorry for him, as she might for a relative with a serious handicap?

The rapture had long ago departed from the marriage. Larry’s diabetes, which worsened over the years, put him all but out of business in the rapture department. She, Deborah, had lots of chances for love affairs — she travelled four or five times a year to academic dental conventions and conferences around the country — but chose not to venture into that land-mined field. Larry, meanwhile, seemed more interested in sex from the voyeuristic angle. She was always catching him staring at bosomy young women; when they went to movies with what she thought of as painfully slow-motion fornication scenes, she didn’t know where to put her eyes, but noticed her husband staring at the screen with great concentration. 

One night, at a fund-raising dinner for the dental school, one of the guests at their table, a man named Jim Breakstone, a successful personal injury lawyer, asked Larry what he did for a living. When Larry told him that he taught political philosophy, Breakstone replied: “A sweet racket. I envy you.”

“What do you mean, racket?” Larry asked. 

“I mean you’ve got the dream deal. You work six, maybe seven, months a year, no pressures, no responsibilities, just talking all day to young people who can’t even tell you you’re full of crap. Pretty nice, if you ask me.”

Larry didn’t answer, but merely shot Breakstone a look of contempt, and didn’t speak to him again through the remainder of the evening. On the drive home, he castigated him to Deborah, non-stop, all the way from the Loop to their house in Evanston. 

“That uncouth bastard, a fucking personal injury lawyer, thinks I have a racket. He should only know how hard I work at perfecting my lectures! Or the amount of time I put into grading my students’ papers. I’d like to see him try to write my book on Hobbes!” And on and on, for 15 miles. This was the first Deborah had heard that her husband was writing a book on Hobbes. At Larry’s death, no trace of the manuscript was found.

Larry’s last years of teaching were his worst. He chose not to learn how to use a computer. He loathed the new regime in universities — the rise of feminism, multiculturalism, affirmative action — and he couldn’t stop himself from making sly remarks in the classroom about how these changes were lowering the standards of higher education. One of his remarks — he claimed John Locke was not “what one might call a strong gynocentric thinker, he didn’t even know where the gynocentre was” — was reported to the department chairman, a Latina named Mary Rodriguez, who took it to the dean. The result was a letter of reprimand from the president of the university, an African-American. Larry responded to this letter by turning in his resignation, at the age of 62. 

Not that retirement changed his life all that much, at least not outwardly. But Larry had begun to turn more and more in on himself. He began watching day-time television, and would report to Deborah when she returned from work who had been on Oprah that morning. The backseat of his car was piled up with books and CDs. He would sit in the room he called his study and listen to Glenn Gould play The Goldberg Variations over and over. At night, he watched baseball or basketball games. He and Deborah had long ceased going to bed at the same time. He was always a restless sleeper, and had in recent years begun to snore. Deborah wanted to suggest that they sleep in different rooms — every day was a full day for her, and she needed her sleep — but she hadn’t the heart to do so, thinking it would only mean another rejection for him. She began to pity this man she had once loved.

Now that Larry is dead, Deborah tries to remember why she let things drift. Could she have roused her husband to shed his bitterness, resentments, trivial envy? Would the threat of divorce have stirred and re-ignited his lost ambition? Although she had never allowed herself to think about divorce, there were countless times when she wished she had no connection with Larry. Going out with other couples, which they did less and less, was always worrisome. He would get going on one of his obsessions — the dopeyness of feminism, the emptiness of African-American Studies programmes, the awfulness of rock ‘n’ roll, the ignorance of the young — and invariably take things a step too far, coming across as a crank. Deborah waited at such moments to find a place to barge into her husband’s tirades to change the subject as smoothly as possible, which wasn’t always easy. 

She worried about him. She worried that he would embarrass himself, that others would see through him, that his act fooled no one. The act, of course, was that he was a superior person forced to live in a cheapened culture, where — the unspoken part — his own talents went unappreciated. She hated the notion that people would think him petty in his complaints, neurotic in his behaviour, a fool and, yes, a loser. She didn’t take it well when her sister Sharon noted how remarkable it was that so lazy a man as Larry held such high standards. She could live with a husband who had turned out to be a flop. What she minded — more for him more than for herself — was that other people saw through him.     

The one thing in which Larry didn’t let her down was in his love for their children, which was unfaltering. He was proud of them, of their accomplishments, of how well they turned out. When their daughter Lisa told Deborah that she had caught Kenny, her husband, cheating on her, Deborah was surprised at Larry’s cool sense of command in taking the matter in hand. She heard him, over the phone to his daughter in Denver, ask all the right questions in an authoritative and yet calming voice: Did Lisa want him back? And if so, under what terms? Would she be willing to allow him, her father, speak to Kenny, letting him know what was at stake and whether he understood what it was going to cost him to enjoy his little entertainments? How far did she want him, her father, to go? The next day he called Kenny and, as he told Deborah he would do, laid the lumber to him. He let him know that he was going to turn the case over to a tiger divorce specialist in his father’s old firm. When it was over, he told him, he would be lucky to have his Bronco season tickets left. As Deborah sat listening to him, he seemed masterly. This, she couldn’t help thinking, was more like the man she thought she had married. Her son-in-law returned to Lisa, all contrition, backed, no doubt, by the  fear instilled in him by father-in-law.  

But then Larry soon enough reverted to the griper and small-advantage man he had become. When he sprained his ankle, for example, he acquired a handicap parking sign that he continued to use long after the ankle was better. 

He would take in old clothes to the Salvation Army and ask large tax write-offs for them. While still teaching, he began secreting Jiffy book bags from the department at school, bags for which he had no real use. What, as the kids say, was that about?

Deborah had never said a word about these things. She had felt the need to correct him, gently, only when she felt he was in danger of humiliating himself, which, with the passing years, became more and more frequent. When he complained to her alone about the dismalness of his colleagues, the dehumanisation of computers, the atmosphere of victimhood that dominated the country, she would let him, pretending to but not really listening; she had heard it all so many times before.  

And now Larry was dead, beyond hope, beyond correction. His death had been sudden, a stroke, brought on by his diabetes, suffered at a traffic light, in Chicago, on his way home from buying more CDs at a used-record shop he had found on Clark Street. Had Larry’s death been a slow one — a cancer death, say, or a disease of the nerves — they might have had time to talk about all this, about what had happened to all his brilliant plans, about whether she should have pushed him more than she did, and so much more.

Years ago, at a dinner party, Deborah listened with interest when at table one of the guests, a divorced woman with a leathery suntan, claimed that love was never entirely equal. In every love affair or marriage, one party was more deeply invested in the relationship than the other, and, this woman claimed, it was probably better to be the less deeply invested party. When she and Larry were first married, as she thought about it now, she probably loved him more than he had loved her — no probably about it, she was certain of it. Larry seemed the one more at ease in the world, a young man used to getting his way, the person who at a party had only to stand off in a corner for other people to come up to him. He had his brilliant future, and she felt herself lucky — privileged even — to be along for the ride. 

Slowly over the years, the balance changed. Deborah couldn’t say for certain that Larry loved her more than she loved him, but he grew more dependent on her, at first for small things, later for decisive ones. Although Larry outwardly showed a superiority to his colleagues, he had inwardly begun to lose his confidence, and would come to Deborah to ask if he had behaved correctly in one or another of his many confrontations with deans and his department chairman. Often he hadn’t, or so she thought, and she felt that she had to let him know that his behaviour was out of line. At first, she did so in the gentlest manner she could devise, but later she told him when he was wrong in the way a parent might correct a ten-year-old child.

Deborah couldn’t help wonder if she had had a hand in Larry’s slow downfall. He had his flaws, God knows, serious ones, but was she too naturally competent, too impatient with dithering, too good at carrying out all her tasks, so that her husband left everything to her but his petty disputes and idiosyncratic interests? She was perfectly content to leave him in his room listening to his music, looking at catalogues from the Franklin Mint, reading (the better to mock) the published work of contemporaries whose success he despised, collecting his model cars and cultivating his many grievances.

There were times when she wished that Larry had had love affairs, one even strong enough to encourage him to leave her. What a relief it would have been! But his death, somehow, wasn’t a relief at all. She remembered the last line of a Noel Coward song called The Widow, which ran, “I’m wearing beautiful mourning, oh what a beautiful day.” But she felt none of that. What she chiefly felt was waste — and what a miserable mistake it had all been. 

Years ago, she had read a short story — she couldn’t remember who wrote it — about a man who goes into a cinema and discovers that the movie is about the courtship of his parents. As his father, in the movie, finally asks his mother to marry him, the man shouts out something like, “No. Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” Standing there, before her dead husband’s closet, she imagines herself in the part of the man’s mother in the movie; like her, she had made the mistake of doing it, of saying yes to the wrong man, Larry Siskin. She couldn’t have known he was the wrong man at the time, but so he turned out to be. 

Deborah tries to remember when she had emotionally if not actually disengaged from her marriage to Larry. He probably wasn’t even aware of it; she herself may not have been. But disengage she did, once she began to sense that he wasn’t going to come through in any serious way, but would instead give his days over to playing with his toys and grousing and brooding on his stunted career. She had her professional life; she had her children. She has long ago achieved independence — financially and in every other way. 

Standing in front of her dead husband’s closet, Deborah tries to imagine the kind of husband she might once have wished to have had. That perfect man, kind, gentle, modest, thoughtful, successful, a patient and proficient lover — Deborah realises that he probably doesn’t exist. Except for the modesty part, she supposes that, when she first married him, she held out hopes that Larry might turn out to be such a husband. A serious error, she decides, looking into the tired clothes in her Larry’s closet. Yet she also decides that in some sick way Larry was the perfect husband for her. She would probably not, with a less neurotically self-absorbed man, have been allowed to live her own life as independently as she has. 

Folding up Larry’s shirts for the ORT bag, Deborah wondered why her thoughts about her marriage seem to press so insistently on her just now. Surely, it was better, as the common wisdom had it, to forget all the negative things about the dead and remember only what was best about them. The fact is that, all the while she and Larry lived together, in a busy life she never stopped to analyse their relationship, at least not in a concentrated way. She could live easily enough with letting things drift. Why was it important she make a final, a definite, judgment now? Was she seeking — what was that dopey word? — closure? Whenever she heard anyone talk about “coming to closure”, she used to think of “closure” as an expensive spa in southern California. Welcome to Closure. 

Deborah has now folded up the rest of Larry’s clothes. She has decided to call in her son Steven, the cardiologist and the only one of her children living in Chicago, to deal with the Franklin Mint and railroad cars and football jerseys, baseball hats, the old records, the CDs, and the rest. She has also decided not to bother with the first edition novels; she’ll just give them to the Evanston Library for its next book sale. 

Larry’s clothes fit into four shopping bags, and Deborah loads them into the trunk of her Volvo. She feels a sudden urgency to get them out of the house. Driving from her house on Isabella, in northwest Evanston, she takes Sheridan Road, which leads into Chicago Avenue, where, near Main, ORT is. But then, at Church Street, she finds herself taking a left, and driving down to the lake. She parks, illegally, near a pier that divides a small boat launch and a dog beach. No one is at the dog beach at the moment; it is October and too late for small boats to be in the waters of Lake Michigan. 

Deborah removes the four shopping bags containing Larry’s clothes from the trunk of her car, and, carrying two in each hand, she walks out to the end of the L-shaped pier. She empties one bag after another into the choppy water. The clothes do not sink but follow the current heading southward, towards downtown, a clear view of whose skyscrapers is available from the end of the pier. Her dead husband’s dark blue down-filled coat, spread out in the water, looks, in the middle-distance, like a raft. She takes one last look at the clothes bobbing and floating away, gathers up the four empty shopping bags, and heads back to the Volvo. In the car, she turns on the ignition, looks into the rear-view mirror to check what the wind out on the pier has done to her hair, and discovers she is smiling. Not her usual, deanly, official, welcoming smile, but a smile with a slight smirk, and a touch, maybe just a touch, of the vindictive to it.

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